Falling in Love with the Sea

The Open Sea
The immensity…

French writer and poet, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, said: ““If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and assign them tasks…rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” 

Anna is on her death bed. She has battled Alzheimer’s disease for almost 10 years. She hasn’t recognized her family for quite some time and this reality has left her terrified, confused. She is often angry. She believes a host of people are trying to trick her. Every unknown day arises again the next with all the same complexity and uncertainty. As her caregiver assists her in preparing for sleep, she hears Anna sing just outside her door: “then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art…”

She has forgotten every sermon she ever heard.

Every bible verse she ever memorized.

Every note she ever took in every bible study.

Every family member’s name.

But she remembers all the verses, word for word, of this great hymn. Why?

A young man in his late twenties battles with a choice. In his circle of friends, he has made the acquaintance of several lovely young women. He dates regularly. These women are delightful, intelligent, captivating. He looks forward to a time when home and family give him better reason to traipse to and from a busy downtown office day after day. A better life picture.

Erin is a Princeton post-doc student. Her dirty blond hair, cheerful demeanour, razor-sharp mind, and engaging repartée have been his regular experience of her. He’s reminded regularly by family and friends just how perfect she is for him. All the “pieces” fit together in a game too big to lose.

Brynne is girl-next-door pretty. Slightly chunky, but still shapely, and full of energy with a quick wit and uproarious sense of humour. Although not as book smart, she is equally intelligent. She is loud, often abrasive but never mean-spirited. She is funny, usually in embarrassingly public ways; opinionated, inadvertently pitting people against one another. She is clumsy and goofy and forgetful and messy and dangerous to his professional reputation.

And he can’t stop thinking about her.

What is happening here? All the facts line up in such a way as to present Erin as the obvious choice for a long-term relationship. Everything “fits.” She fills well the checklist on any relationship course he’s ever taken. Against his better judgment and flying in the face of the facts, Brynne rises to his mind continually. Something about her haunts him, chases him, wants him.

In our current church culture, we usually pose as the primary question of Christian discipleship “what do you believe?” And, pursuant to that question is the presupposition that you need all the facts before you can make an informed decision. I’d like to suggest however that an even more fundamental question is “what do you want?”

James K. A. Smith in his book “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit” suggests that we are what we want. “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our heart, the epicenter of the human person…”

What we often generate in our churches is a fill-in-the-blanks doctrinal checklist that amounts to a legal transaction. It is more Descartian: “I think, therefore I am,” than biblical.

Our young man in question will of course do well to know his own heart to navigate whatever his future relationships hold. But in his inexplicable desire for Brynne over Erin, despite appearances to the contrary, we find a key to how God seeks to relate to us.

“Discipleship [then] is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.” Even the demons believe and shudder. Knowing facts is easy. Retooling the human heart and its longings is not. But, it is our truest path. That is my call: to work in the Spirit’s process of forming a kingdom people by means of the gathered community in worship.

St. Augustine is quoted as saying, “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.” Our discipleship is less about information than it is transformation.

We don’t instruct people deeper into kingdom life. We inspire them. The heart knows what it loves and that is what forms the foundation of our actions and our habits. Our journey is one of inspiring and shaping our heart’s deepest desires, bending them ever more toward Christ and his kingdom.

Our journey is to discover the beauty and holy peril, oddly comforting, of being adrift with God on the vastness of life’s open sea. 

 

Lord, Saint Augustine once said we’re created by God and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Sometimes the way to you can seem cloudy, or grown over with thistles and weeds. We thank you for our longings. We love because you first loved us. You’ve built it into our DNA. Help us not to be afraid of what most deeply moves us, even if that isn’t lofty or what we typically think of as holy. Instead, grab hold of our hearts and shape them, Lord. Form in us a new and undeniable passion for life with God and others. And that, Lord, will be our truest joy. Amen.

 

Maidin Paidir – Domhnaigh

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Morning Prayer – Sunday

 

With tear-drenched voices,

lungs outstretched to sing,

our guts emboldened, well-fed

on flesh, broken –

and tongues to taste blood from a cup,

let our tiny reverie resound

in the vast echo of your heart,

beating like yours.

 

Madin Paidir – Sathairn

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Morning Prayer – Saturday

In our frantic days

carved more in years than hours,

remind our hands to reconnect

to our yearning,

our feet to our love and, together,

find again our place

in the bosom of God.

Maidin Paidir – Déardaoin

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Morning Prayer – Thursday

 

Lord, sometimes we laugh.

And our chuckles of contentedness

are just tall enough to reach the table

upon which is spread

a riotous meal of grace.

 

Where all laughter begins.

The changing face of prayer

As I deepen, glacially but surely, in the Way of Jesus I am finding freedom in the manner, frequency, and creativity of spiritual intercourse. There are a number of factors in these discoveries. I am getting older – a fact, apparently, applicable to all. The passing chronos lends a certain gravitas to the focus of kairos. And, the slow-cook crockpot of my formation adds fewer ingredients every year to an already complicated soup. Sometimes it’s not more, or even better, ingredients that are required for the quintessential meal. Sometimes it’s the right ones at the right time that leave the palette happy and wanting more.

As I’ve written numerous places, the past few years have been richly experimental in regions of contemplative prayer. Learning to love silence. Seeking out solitude. Making friends with simplicity. Studying the nuanced coup d’etat of lectio divina. Prayer walking. Being enriched through congregational liturgy. Journalling the works.

All these and more continue to contribute to whatever Rob, slightly enhanced, may be forthcoming off the stove.

But something is changing. With the increasing 20/20 available through the grace of kairos and the experience of chronos, I’m latching more and more onto the fluidity and ubiquity of unceasing prayer, specifically as it has come to be associated with who I am more than an action to which I commit. If in fact it is true that God is omnipresent, theologically, and an unceasingly constant spiritually, then it should come as no surprise that prayer can and perhaps should be, everything.

There is a state of being available to all persons everywhere that is readily found in that which most thrills the soul. For some, the ticking clock, counting the passing hours immersed in good literature. For others, it is the choir of smells united in one explosive song on a nature walk. For still others, it may be culling from the raw ingredients of the earth, something rich and flavorful with which to delight the tastebuds of friends and family.

For me, it was music and writing.

MASFL Pix 009 copy
Me, roughly a millenia ago

 

As a teen, and a budding musician, I would often sit for hours on the front step of our house simply playing my guitar. The notes, some of them good, others lined up for the shower, collided together to produce more than just music. They created space; a kind of generous openness to whatever the universe was at the time. A particular kind of peaceful “zen” or as Thomas Merton might call it, “contemplative awareness” resulted, leaving me just where I needed to be. This was true even as I spent countless agonizing hours learning impossibly difficult melodies (I certainly thought so at the time!).

In recent months, as more conventional understandings of contemplative prayer have waned a bit, I’ve had a certain yearning to resurrect this practice. And resurrection has been the result. To plant myself on a lawn chair a few feet from my rose bushes (such as they are) and play music inspired by the same, in tune with the wind, has once again ushered in a holy Presence. It has centered me like nothing else lately. 

Rob-singing on Okanagan Lake
Taken on Okanagan Lake, Kelowna, B.C., 1999

 It has also brought a much cherished simplicity and deepening unification of all I am into pulsating notes, maybe not always in tune, but always tuning. Music, once again, has become for me the changing face of prayer, changing me.

the art of wasting perfume

There are smart people out there with books and articles and quotes intimating that the wick of the worship wars flame has burned to a stump. Now, only sticky wax remains out of which we may safely pull something shapely and useful. Whether that is true or not I can’t really say. But, we’ve been sailing post-modern seas long enough to have emerged in a somewhat better place regarding shared worship practices. What interests me most however lies much deeper than mere ritual.

So much of our corporate experience of ecclesiastica these days is about efficiency, effectiveness and euphoria (no extra charge for the cute alliteration). Even big box churches like Saddleback and Willow Creek are recognizing that it’s much easier to draw crowds than deepen congregations. Spend enough money in the right places, position the right people in your dream team staff and learn the angles (this, apparently, means relevance or some such thing) and success is all but guaranteed.

A scourge, not just of contemporary faith and practice, but of early New Testament times as well, is that of pragmatism; visible, quantifiable, “helpful” theology. If some practice of faith doesn’t yield measurable results it is considered suspect, superfluous; even useless. Dead-weight. Dross. The average church building boasts classrooms for every grade, meeting rooms for everything from Ladies’ Teas to A.A. to Family Ministries. Closet space is dedicated to coats, robes, wedding paraphernalia, soup bowls and Christmas decorations. Signs in the Narthex (lobby, foyer) proudly point to these rooms, giving visitors the impression that this is a church on the move. Look at us, we’re not idle. We’re doin’ stuff. Good stuff. Lotsa stuff. It’s exhausting just to consider the dizzying possibilities, let alone dive in.

In our culture, if an idea or practice isn’t immediately and continually beneficial for coffers, volunteers, or givers, it is suspect at best, anathema at worst.

I committed my life to Jesus while driving home to Calgary from a pub gig in Edmonton. A creeping loneliness blending with a troubled psyche was replaced by a lightness of mind and heart I can only describe as…good. Really, really good. I was barely eighteen and living at home. That very evening, my own gratitude and joy spilled over to my Mom, who became the surprised recipient of a fifty-dollar bill for doing my laundry. There is nothing quite like the joy of lavish waste in the name of thanksgiving. Well, and the look of delightful surprise with concerned consternation on someone’s face on the receiving end of such magnanimity.

As I’ve been discovering ever since, such acts are nothing new. Happy hearts become ready harbors for such ships of gratitude, over-laden with desire to be offloaded onto the object of their affection. The Gospel is all about waste and abundance in the name of love; the praise of those who get what it means to be seen. To be known. If you don’t believe me, ask your wife if the time spent making love might not be better spent painting the guest room. I dare say it might be a venture that just prepped your new sleeping quarters. The scriptures are replete with examples of extravagance in the name of love.

I am rather fond of a seedy picture of a woman, obviously swooning in gratitude for the courteous and loving attention of a well-known Rabbi casually saunters over and basically pours her beer on Jesus. Well, actually super expensive perfume. Like, way expensive. A rather sexual act by any standard, it alone deserves volumes for it speaks of much more than simple extravagance. Jesus affixes theological significance to the act. And, of course, the pragmatists in the crowd, thinking themselves in-sensed out of high ideals jump all over it.

Of course, as we can always expect under such lavish displays of unadorned praise offered inappropriately to the wrong person at the wrong time in the wrong way, self-proclaimed keepers of the moral gates then, as now, cry foul. They either spit out their tea or drop their knitting needles. By the way, have you ever wondered where those sneaky bastards always come from? They’re positively creepy in their ubiquity as though finding crevices behind rocks, under the dining room table, or behind the rhododendrons.

The scriptures are replete with such acts of selfless wastefulness. Joseph of Arimathea, one of Jesus’ wealthier followers, became his post-mortem patron in the form a top tier burial plot. Not the magnanimity one would generally prefer, but there it is; another example of a heart needing to express itself in wealthy waste. King David craves water be brought him while facing the brutal Philistines but decides instead to pour out the most valuable currency in the desert back to the desert. He too knew the art of worshipful waste.

Although an overused example, it serves to illustrate my point here; if this woman by her act has openly laid bare her heart, swollen in the ache of gratitude, then she shows us what worship truly is. What it means to adore someone. And her risky act of risqué devotion mirrors God’s own character. Jesus is God’s wasted perfume. Jesus understands her because he understands his own journey into the dark abyss of broken humanity. It is a pilgrimage of pain, not the pain of the cross primarily, but the pain of loss and loneliness.

She mirrors the heart of God who knows only too well the art of wasting perfume.

God’s calligraphy – a prayer

My post concerning my ongoing prayer experiment has been a particularly popular one. My guess is that it touches a certain “soft spot” among seekers out there just like me who yearn for the rediscovery of something: contemplative prayer and how to get there. I’m thankful I am not taking this journey alone but do so with a myriad of others just as thirsty as I to reclaim what was lost at the Reformation and sealed up tight post-Enlightenment…mystery

This was the post-post prayer that I added. I’ll let it speak here on its own. I trust it does just that…speak.

Shalom, dear ones

Lord, fashion, in slow calligraphy, your name

in a once-stone heart, broken now as sand.

Spit out the bones of my old, gristled soul revivified on your tongue,

reattached to the sinews of your own holy arm. 

Sear the brand of white hot remembrance into the skin of my brazen back

so that only those I lead can see it.

In the wordless chatter of our silent conversations,

bring up the topics closest to your heart that breaks so much easier than mine.

Let the voices of a hundred thousand saints

crowd out the stifling arrogance of my solitary blethering.

And into that holy community of singing silence,

sing, Holy One, sing.

Chinese word for 'love'
Chinese word for ‘love’

 

Picture found here.

My ongoing prayer experiment

A while back I began to write about my big prayer experiment. In that piece, I shared the three greatest gifts to my prayer life:

1. Contemplative prayer, I.e. prayer without agenda/lovingly gazing at God.

2. Total honesty in the presence of a God who already knows all my shit.

3. The gift of Intercession.

Nothing has changed with this experiment. I do want to add something, however; something that has utterly revolutionized my prayer life, turning it into something to which I cannot wait to return.

I pray the Rosary.

Big deal, right? Millions do. Well, here’s the thing – I’m a Protestant. We’re supposed to look with suspicion, pity or even hatred at such wayward, Medieval practices believing them to be the rote, meaningless prayers pooh-poohed by Jesus in the Gospels. How could such a ridiculous thing, something held in regard by little, old ladies and superstitious saintly wannabes possibly lead one to the expected spontaneity and relationship we’re led to accept through our more enlightened “salvation prayer” at the end of the 4 Spiritual Laws booklet? Or so we Protestants are taught to think. You remember…the “Accept you’re a sinner/Believe in the Good News/Confess your sins” prayer that, like magic, whisks us from the apparent hell of our present existence into the Thomas Kinkade wonderland of Jesusy goodness? It’s actually a very good prayer. A necessary one.

It’s just so…incomplete.

Actually, I prayed that prayer once, too. Not necessarily that exact prayer, but one just like it. I credit that prayer for bringing a keener sense of articulation and focus to my otherwise meandering picture of me and God. I suppose I could even credit that “salvation prayer” as my come-to-Jesus moment, with the beginning (continuation?) of a journey even deeper into the heart of prayer.

The Rosary has been an important step in solidifying my need to regulate my prayer practice in chronological, tactile and organized ways. It also invites me to see prayer as more than just talking at God. Here, I can sit with another, Someone whose indelible presence ought to leave me breathless and speechless anyway. Although I’ve owned one before, it wasn’t until my dear Catholic friend, Val Dodge Head, gifted me with one I could actually wear around my neck that I began developing a daily practice. Here is the historic Rosary Prayer:

Rosary Prayer

The purpose of the Rosary is to help keep in memory certain principal events or mysteries in the history of our salvation, and to thank and praise God for them. This is the mountain rapids version of the Rosary Prayer. It begins with the Sign of the Cross and the Apostles’ Creed. This is followed, successively, by The Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father or Pater Noster), 3 Hail Marys, the 1st Mystery of Our Father and Hail Holy Queen. There are twenty mysteries reflected upon in the Rosary, all of which are divided into the five JOYFUL MYSTERIES, the five LUMINOUS MYSTERIES, the five SORROWFUL MYSTERIES, and the five GLORIOUS MYSTERIES. The Hail Mary is recited ten times (called a decade) between meditating on the mysteries in question. After each decade is said the following prayer requested by the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy.” The whole undertaking is a most imaginative blending of redemptive and mystical theology.

Here is my own adaptation.

I begin and end with the Sign of the Cross. The crucifix acts as The Lord’s Prayer both in and out of my Rosary. For morning prayer, the first bead is always Psalm 63 (King James Version), which I memorized many years ago. If in the afternoon, I’ll choose some other Psalm or a Prayer of St. Columba: “Kindle in our hearts, O God, the flame of that love which never ceases, that it may burn in us, giving light to others. May we shine forever in your holy temple, set on fire with your eternal light, even your Son Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer.” The Hail Mary beads are replaced by 3 Kyries (Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy). In turn, these are followed, respectively, by the well known Ignatian Prayer, the Anima Christi and the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. The decade beads are breath prayers. With these, I practice more contemplative or centering prayer. Phrases such as “peace, be still” or “in the Lord, I’ll be ever thankful” or “holy is your name, O Lord” or, most often, The Jesus Prayer punctuate this time. It is unhurried and allows my mind to cleanse and my soul to pulsate to the sound of God’s own heart. The Mystery beads form a wonderful place for me to pray the daily Lectionary Psalms, various scriptures I have memorized or, on more creative retreat days, I’ll write or read poetry I’ve written. I exit the Rosary the same way I entered, although in reverse order.

The Rosary has been great respite to me since I am living nowhere near the Monasteries I used to frequent in Oregon. God has shown me just how holy even the most unholy places can be. In those places least ideal for luminosity, God has been busily proving me wrong about my previous misconceptions. The mysterious geography of prayer must begin in the cracks and fissures of the human spirit before it gets the added benefit of the babbling brook heard just outside the Monastery gates.

The Rosary has helped. 

Lord, fashion the slow calligraphy of your name

in a once stone heart, broken now as sand.

Spit out the bones of my old, gristled soul revivified on your tongue,

reattached to the sinews of your own holy arm. 

Sear the brand of white hot remembrance into the skin of my brazen back

so that only those I lead can see it.

In the wordless chatter of our silent conversations,

bring up the topics closest to your heart that breaks so much easier than mine.

Let the voices of a hundred thousand saints

crowd out the stifling arrogance of my solitary blethering.

And into that holy community of singing silence,

sing, Holy One, sing.

 

PIcture of Rosary can be found here. Rosary Prayer instructions can be found here.

________ One – a prayer

Ineffable One,

there is a haze of wanton disregard fogging the window to my soul;

a fog of discontent that swirls around my deepest knowing;

an arrogant knowing where, in it’s place, I need unknowing.

Holy One,

relieve me of foolish trust in my ability to live in perfection.

Let loose the hounds of irreducible chaos if by their baying

I learn to shut out the noise of my voice for the Voice.

Glorious One,

teach me that, to look directly into the sun, is death.

But, to gaze into your face through grace filtered and raw,

is to see you as you truly are – horrifying in beauty.

Little One,

it once was said that the One who flung stars into space

fits securely in the tiny confines of the human heart.

Similarly, make me tiny, so that your reach through me is great.

Unseen One,

I have convinced myself that you make yourself invisible.

Remind me that I see you every time someone cries in pain

or, at the risk of their own wellness, becomes pain for another.

Elusive One,

forgive me for when I boast of my growing knowledge of God,

only to discover that it’s all been a ruse, a play on words,

your playful, cryptic way of introducing me to myself.

Unending One,

shake me loose from the need to place parameters, provisos,

gates on that which only ever bursts them asunder.

Help me to stop trying to find your endings and look for beginnings.

Loving One,

I am at a loss to understand, let alone experience,

such self-forgetful yearning for the good of another

that you would watch yourself disappear into the abyss,

only to return as the One.